Russia And Nigeria: Turning A New Page In Their Relationship? – OpEd


On March 6, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held talks with Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Nigeria Yusuf Maitama Tuggar, who visited Moscow on an official two-day working visit. The early March visit, which has a lot of implications and interpretations, was a conscious follow up to review and discuss the Russian-Nigerian partnership issues that were raised long ago and during the second Russia-Africa summit held last July 2023.

The second Russia-Africa Summit took place in St Petersburg, and Vice President Kashim Shettima headed the Nigerian delegation. Foreign Minister Yusuf Maitama Tuggar was among the members. Nigeria is one of Africa’s biggest countries and Russia’s priority partner in the region. 

In the opening remarks and with historical precision, Lavrov mentioned the frequency Nigeria delegations visited Moscow and added “This meeting reflects the long-term friendship between our nations and good prospects for the development of our relations at this stage. We consider Nigeria a priority partner on the African continent.” 

In practical terms, Russia has maintained ‘cordial relationship’ with Nigeria these several years after the collapse of the Soviet era. The greatest achievement, of course, is sustaining the political consultations and frequent dialoguing several issues which have not been effectively implemented. 

At the media conference after their ‘behind-the-scene’ discussions on March 6, Moscow and Abuja simply reaffirmed their commitment to the Russian-Nigerian cooperation in political, trade, economic, humanitarian and other areas. It also included the prospects for expanding business contacts and implementing joint projects in energy, mining and mineral processing, construction and modernising infrastructure, and agriculture. 

“With this aim in view we have agreed to stimulate the activities of the Intergovernmental Commission for Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technological Cooperation and to make use of the capabilities of the Russia-Nigeria Business Council. We need to improve out legal framework for implementing projects of mutual interest. We have an interest in implementing the agreement on military-technical cooperation, which has recently been extended. Our Nigerian friends are interested in this too,” Lavrov emphasized.

Both Ministers Sergey Lavrov and Yusuf Maitama Tuggar, during their joint conference, inevitably never pointed to a single project implemented and successfully completed during these several years. Lavrov has held his position as foreign minister for three decades, since 2004, and have been dealing with Nigeria and African countries.

More than a decade ago, Foreign Minister Lavrov held a review meeting with his Nigerian counterpart Minister Chief Ojo Mbila Maduekwe who paid a three-day working visit to Moscow. After the closed-door bilateral talks held in March 2009, both ministers held a brief media conference noted that Moscow was prepared to offer trade preferences to the Federal Republic of Nigeria. 

They also agreed on a broad range of bilateral economic issues, many of which are still not implemented. Until today, Russia has never honoured its promise of extending trade preferences, in practical terms, to Nigeria. Extending trade preferences was interpreted as an integral part of strengthening bilateral economic and trade cooperation between the two countries. 

For trade relations between Russia and Nigeria and other African states to improve appreciably, Professor Dmitri Bondarenko, deputy director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for African Studies, suggested that “Russia gives some trade preferences to African countries – for example, tax exceptions or reduction among other measures. This can become an effective political step to strengthen relations with African countries.”

Today, Nigeria is Russia’s second largest trade partner among sub-Saharan African countries. Russian business circles show an ever greater interest, with sweet rhetorics, in entering the promising market of that large country. The volume of trade should be in the billions of dollars, even without military hardware. One of the major hindrances to free trade and a significant increase in trade transactions between Nigeria and Russia is the lack of direct air flights. This makes it more inconvenient and expensive for potential investors to travel easily to both countries. Besides, there are no adequate economic and social statistics available to potential Russian and Nigerian investors.

In May 2022, the Nigerian Ambassador to the Russian Federation, Professor Abdullahi Shehu, gave an inspiring lecture at the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian MInistry of Foreign Affairs. Most of the points he raised in that lecture included decades of Moscow’s economic failures in Nigeria and in many African countries despite the boast of several years of cordial relationship with Africa.

President Vladimir Putin considers Africa a so-called second frontier, after Eastern Europe for encircling Western Europe…These reasons may sound strategic yet they remain largely speculative and conjectural. Understandably, the perceived geopolitical irrelevance of Africa by Russia has changed only a little and new dynamics have beckoned on both sides of subsisting opportunities for increased collaboration between Africa and Russia.

Despite the tidal surge in the new Africa-Russia relations and given the strategic role played by the defunct Soviet Union, now succeeded by Russia, in the attainment of the independence of many African countries, both parties must accept the constraints posed on the former (Russia) by the new economic cum geopolitical realities. The acceptance of these new realities is important in order to properly assist in the management of Africa’s expectations from Russia particularly in the short term.

Today, for instance, Nigeria offers Russia the advantage of cheap and robust labour. Given Russia’s recent experience of sanctions by America and its western allies, a new model of doing business with Africa through investment has become, not only sustainable but also imperative. Perhaps, one of the sectors where this model of doing business can be symbiotically harnessed is in the field of agriculture and its value chain as a result of the steep rise in the large African market and the projected certainty of huge returns on investment in this sector, according to Ambassador Shehu.

Part of the major essence of this lecture was to look at the past with a view to charting a course for the future, inhaling the fresh aroma of the beauty of the ‘rose’ in Africa-Russia relationship, weeding out the thorns of inconvenience on which Africa and Russia have marched and straighten any crooked path along which both have passed so as to arrive faster to the desired destination. While Africa cherishes the important MOUs and agreements Russia has with Africa, there is need to translate such agreements and MOUs into concrete realities. Additionally, balancing of Russia’s commercial interests of arms sales to Africa will ensure that the latter enjoys relative stability and peace so vital for its own development.

Russia has had a long chequered history of diplomacy. President Olusegun Obasanjo visited Russia in 2001. Since then, there had been a number of deals and business proposals that have never seen the bright sunlight. As far back in June 2009, Dmitry Medvedev as president visited Nigeria for the first time, held topmost state level talks on possible nuclear energy, oil exploration and military cooperation. There were talks also focusing on the establishment of petrochemical plant in Nigeria. Alongside there was also a declaration on principles of friendly relations and partnership between Nigeria and the Russian Federation.

Russian investors had wanted to revamp the Ajeokuta Iron and Steel Complex that was abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union more than three decades ago, and further take up energy, oil and gas projects in Nigeria, as well as facilitate trade between Nigeria and Russia. In addition, Russia has been prospecting for its nuclear-power ambitions down the years. The promise was to build two nuclear plants estimated cost at US$20 billion – the bulk of it by Russia, is to boost Nigeria’s electricity supply.

Russia’s second-largest oil company, and privately controlled Lukoil, has gone back and forth these several years with plans to expand its operations in Nigeria, and in a number of West African countries. There has been a long-dead silence after Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, signed an agreement with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) on the exploration and exploitation of gas reserves with a new joint venture company known as NiGaz Energy Company.

There are many other aspects of the bilateral relations. With high interest, Russians are pushing for military-technical cooperation. The supply of Russian military equipment could play a high value addition to the fight against notorious Boko Haram. In most of the economic deals, the Nigerian political elites are under strong influence of Paris, London and Washington. 

Nigeria is an economic powerhouse in West African region. As well known, Nigeria is one of the Africa’s fastest growing economies and it boosts the largest population. Russia and Nigeria have some sort of economic relations, but these are not consistent with the long-standing cordial relations between both countries.

In addition, Nigeria is a vast market with huge potentials for prospective foreign investors and so is Russia. Regrettably, investors from both sides appear to know little about these opportunities. This is, usually attributed to the apparent inadequate knowledge of the many investment opportunities in both countries. Despite criticisms, reports show that majority prefer traditional markets – the United States and Europe, and now Asian region. The African political elite and business people choose the United States and Europe for their holidays and as tourism destinations.

The term – bilateral relations – seen as a two-way street, Nigeria’s presence in the Russian Federation is only the diplomatic representative office. Public outreach diplomacy is generally ineffective, both ways between Russia and Africa. Compared, for example, to American Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and a number of trade preferences granted by Europe, Russians hardly encourage African presence in the Russian Federation. On the other hand, Russia hardly make reference to the African continental single market (AfCFTA). With an estimated 1.4 billion people, the market is potentially the largest, Africa – is the continent of the future.

In summary, the Russian strategic policy interest generally in Africa and specifically in Nigeria, given the strong limitation of its current capability, Russia’s re-emergence in Africa, is an earnest attempt to resume post-Soviet relations. But this current relations, within the context of geopolitical changes, must necessarily be conducted with consistency and concrete manner, but not with rhetorics. It is about time to act and take noticeable actions. According to various narratives, Russia appears only as an advocate of emerging multipolar order and reliable virtual investor in Africa.

Kester Kenn Klomegah

Kester Kenn Klomegah is an independent researcher and a policy consultant on African affairs in the Russian Federation and Eurasian Union. He has won media awards for highlighting economic diplomacy in the region with Africa. Currently, Klomegah is a Special Representative for Africa on the Board of the Russian Trade and Economic Development Council. He enjoys travelling and visiting historical places in Eastern and Central Europe. Klomegah is a frequent and passionate contributor to Eurasia Review.

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